It has often been said that moments of human tragedy on a large scale can help to being together otherwise distant or even conflicting elements of a society in order to help promote collective welfare during an urgent crisis. The heroism demonstrated by many ordinary people as well as fire-fighters and rescuers during and after the 9/11 attacks as well as stories of human sacrifice to save vulnerable passengers on the doomed RMS Titanic during its sinking in 1912 are testaments to the fact that the human spirit’s instinct towards compassion in a time of crisis is indeed a profound phenomenon.
Yet during such tragedies there is often a selfish side in man’s animalistic background that is brought to the fore, while the way societies collectively interpret tragedies is often shaped by not only their cultural characteristics but by a particular political reality at any given moment in time.
Titanic through three unique perspectives
One of the first major films on the sinking of Titanic was produced during the Second World War in Nazi Germany. 1943’s Titanic portrayed a class of Anglo-American ultra-capitalists as being responsible for the disaster. In the film, the globally vilified J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, Titanic’s owners, was portrayed as the architect of a scheme to short sell shares in White Star Line in order to then rapidly purchase cheap shares in the company just before news is published that Titanic had broken the record in terms of speed in a trans-Atlantic sea voyage.
In order to achieve this, the film portrays Ismay as recklessly ordering the ship to travel through icy waters at unsafe speeds – something which ultimately led to the ship’s fatal collision with an iceberg. During the panic that ensued, the German film further demonstrates class hatred among British elites as being responsible for first class passengers showering those below deck with contempt even as the ship’s steerage class passengers tried desperately to escape into lifeboats. While the sinking of the ill-fated ship did in fact elicit both heroism and selfish reactions from various passengers, the German film focuses primarily on the negative effects of selfishness blamed on Anglo-American economic greed as well as the uniquely stuff British class system which continued to sow contempt between upper and lower classes even at a time when all were fighting for their lives.
By contrast, a fictional German crewman is portrayed as heroic and selfless in his sacrifices to save others in the final hours before Titanic hit the ocean floor while British and American elites worked to save themselves, often at the expense of women, children and other vulnerable people.
A very different historical reflection of the sinking of RMS Titanic was offered in the 1958 British film A Night to Remember. This film viewed the sinking of Titanic in 1912 through the prism of a post-Second World War Britain in which class barriers still very much existed but became diminished due to a shared national struggle during war time that saw social elites stand alongside their social “underlings” both in combat abroad and on the home front. This film portrayed the causes of the ship’s sinking with documentary like accuracy while portraying actions of the men and women aboard during the aftermath of the ship’s hitting of the iceberg in light of the stoicism that had come to define British culture during and immediately after the War. In the film, elite men are seen as acting in a largely dutiful and sacrificial manner in order to assure that some measure of order sustains throughout the chaos. Here, the atmosphere of the Second World War which George Orwell spoke of as reducing previous class tensions was very much the prism throughout which the events of 1912 were portrayed.
To be fair, A Night to Remember, portrays selfish acts as well as heroic acts, but unlike the 1943 Titanic film, the 1958 British film emphasis human collective sacrifice while the German film emphasised British and American greed and self-serving wickedness as the defining elements of Titanic’s final hours.
In 1997 American film Titanic, like the German film of 1943 also scoffs at the stiffness of Britain’s class system which was highly apparent on the ship, but does from a uniquely American perspective that ignores similarities among America’s own financial elite who were very much represented among the fist class passengers on RMS Titanic. Likewise, in a typically extravagant American style, the film is able to tack a laborious happy ending onto a film which portrays the death of 1,635 people. The American film’s overarching and vulgar message is that in spite of an unjust class system aboard the ship, in spite of the human error which led to the sinking and in spite of acts of both heroism and selfishness as the ship sunk, because one of the survivors learned that human love can change one’s outlook on life, somehow we the audience should see this positive development as the main takeaway from the film while the sinking of a colossal ship and over a thousand lives lost is just somehow just a backstory.
Thus, one can see how the political perspectives of war-time Germany, post-war Britain and post-Cold War hubristic America all produced three radically different views of the exact same well documented tragedy.
Conflicting 9/11 narratives
In respect of 9/11 there are even more interpretations of the tragedy throughout multiple global cultures, but especially in American society. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, American media tended to emphasise that New Yorkers of all backgrounds came together during and after the attacks to aid their fellow men and women at a time when nearly 3,000 souls were lost and three buildings in lower Manhattan shockingly collapsed. This narrative of sacrifice however soon gave way to one of blame wherein all Muslims became the scapegoats for the atrocity including those born in the US with zero loyalties to any radical or extremist group.
But just as the “we’re all united” narrative gave way to the “we’re all united against Muslims” narrative – so too did these simplistic narratives give way to one of internal division as it became clear that the 9/11 Commission Report of 2004 was more of a cover-up than a genuine investigation as it overlooked Israel’s role in the attacks, did not place any blame at the hands of World Trade Center owner Larry Silverstein when even the enquiries into the sinking of Titanic named and shamed owner Bruce Ismay and finally, the 9/11 Commission Report opened up internal divisions as not a single US public official was punished for the negligent acts which led to what could have and should have been an entirely preventable atrocity.
Thus, while most people continue to see 9/11 as an unimaginable tragedy, they also believe that there is much blame to go around and that social and political elites from the US and allied nations are as much to blame as foreign terrorists. In recent years, Donald Trump has jointed the millions of Americans who blame elements of the Bush administration for 9/11.
Unilateralism caused the Titanic to sink and the World Trade Centre to be destroyed
The various cultural and political reflections on both the sinking of Titanic and the 9/11 atrocity demonstrate that while such events are capable of producing moments of human unity in the face of a collective disaster, such events also rapidly inspire division along nationalistic, ethnic, religious, political and ideological lines. Because of this, reactions to such tragedies that ought to inspire multilateral unity often lead to further unilateral policies that only serve to divide a world whose population could mutually benefit from a shared pooling of expertise and human creative and physical power.
If for example, Titanic had been built as a joint Anglo-German venture, two countries that made war upon each other two years after the ship sank could have instead learned from one another in areas ranging from mechanical engineering and design to crowd management and safety regulations. There is little doubt that the brightest minds in both Britain and Germany could have built a more seaworthy ship than that which Britain was able to build alone in 1912. Likewise, had the crew had a more nationally diverse background, different cultural characteristics could have offered a wider variety of solutions to the problems faced on board Titanic, thus offering a better set of options that could have been invoked to solve the problems faced by those aboard Titanic. This is not to say that any one set of cultural characteristics is more holistically profound than any other, but instead it is to say that the unique wisdom and experiences inherent in each individual set of cultural characteristics could have helped to offer the widest set of solutions to major problems during a time when a profound crisis demands as many viable solutions as possible.
Likewise, if after the Cold War, the United States had moved away from a confrontational geopolitical stance and instead worked to harmonise and balance relations between multiple nations including between Israel and the wider Islamic world, the divisions which helped to promote an atmosphere of hatred in which the multi-national authors of 9/11 derived, could have been greatly minimised. Likewise, had a more international approach to security been taken prior to 9/11, it may have been possible for enemies of the people within the US and allied states to be exposed prior to the attacks for the benefit of the American people and other victims of 9/11. As such, a more inter-connected security framework would have prioritised intelligent security action steps over an atmosphere of unilateral gamesmanship whose tangled web of deceit and incompetence ultimately led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent lives on that clear September day.
The Belt and Road solution
Implicit in the Belt and Road connectivity initiative is the notion that all people become stronger when all nations adopt a win-win approach to problem solving that eschews the dangerous unilateral zero-sum mentality in favour of cooperation, dialogue and a sharing of information, knowledge and expertise in the pursuit of solving mutual problems and attaining joint goals. Within the framework of Belt and Road, the horrors of economic nationalism are replaced by an atmosphere of voluntary cooperation that can see all nations live up to and even exceed their prior potential while partnering with other nations to elevate living standards that simply cannot be served by a closed economic model.
Belt and Road not only stresses cooperation over competition but likewise stresses mutual respect over imperialist coercion. Such a system when applied across multiple sectors can necessarily result in better and safer products being produced due to a pooling of talent and resources, but in terms of quality control and security, the cooperative Belt and Road model can assure that responsible people and nations can act in concert against the universal challenges of terrorism, narcotics, unilateral greed and religious and political extremism.
In this sense, the great minds across Belt and Road may yet be able to produce something close to an unsinkable ship and towers that can survive large scale attacks. Furthermore, a non-confrontational security approach as best demonstrated by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) can help to pool collective security resources against the kinds of threats that put large ships and large building in danger of attacks from rogue elements throughout the globe.
It should not be surprising that in addition to producing heroic responses, the Titanic and 9/11 disasters also revealed the most shameful, selfish, hateful and self-indulgent of human characteristics. This is because the most shameful, selfish, hateful and self-indulgent characteristics are implicit in the unilateral mentality taken by those in charge of protecting the World Trade Centre and of insuring a safe voyage for Titanic. When elite social forces act unilaterally, they should not then be shocked when vicious unilateral responses are the results of their own policies having failed the people.
By contrast, people-centric approaches to multilateral problem solving can help to prevent most large scale disasters by assuring a collective approach to the construction and maintenance of physical infrastructure as well as the coordination of human connectivity to assure social harmony and security. Furthermore, a more open model of international security against common threats can help to foster a mentality of trust that prioritises a collective determination to prevent crime and violence over a unilateral zero-sum mentality of hatred that allows terrorists and the criminally negligent to become powerful.
According to Xi Jinping Thought:
“The people are the creators of history as well as the fundamental forces that determine the future and destiny of the party and the country. We must adhere to the principal position of the people, adhere to building a party that serves the interests of the public and to governing the country for the people”.
Furthermore, Xi Jinping Thought also states:
“The dream of the Chinese people is closely connected with the dreams of other peoples of the world. Realising the Chinese dream is inseparable from a peaceful international environment and a stable international order. [We must] always be the builder of world peace, the contributor to global development and the defender of the international order”.
If this attitude was taken throughout the world, the heroism of some in the aftermath of Titanic’s collision and the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 would become the rule rather than the exception.